review by Luke McKechnie
John Freeman, ed.
Should you be unacquainted with Granta, then it is my pleasure to introduce you. Granta, The Magazine of New Writing, is a themed quarterly anthology that comes out of the UK. Each edition includes a collection of published works, chosen with acuity; excerpts from works-in-progress, commissioned pieces and generally a photo-essay. The production values and quality of the writing selections are defining features.
Access to Granta, is akin to having an excellent reading-buddy, someone who will draw your attention to fascinating or challenging texts that you might otherwise miss. The editors have a brilliant track-record of choosing winners; take a look at the list of contributors to Granta 43: Best of Young British Novelists published in 1993 [note 1] – to see a constellation of relative no-names that transformed into literary stars.
Granta over the years has been a key to the secret garden – or perhaps more accurately, nursery – of the literary world. It has introduced me to writers that have become favourites (Gellhorn, Mars-Jones, Barnes, Ishiguro, Hollinghurst, etc, etc) and to some real treasures of literature, for example The Anatomy of Desire by John L'Heureux.
While the magazine has no stated political or literary manifesto, each edition is themed; the central thread of Granta 113 is young Spanish-language writers. 1975 marked the end of the Franco dictatorship in Spain; however, repressive regimes persisted across South America for at least another decade. Gradually the locus of exiled South American writers migrated from Paris to post-Franco Spain. Each of the twenty-two writers included in this collection was born in 1975 or thereafter and writes in Spanish. Each has published at least one novel or short-story collection; few have previously been published in English.
There are twenty translators for these twenty-two texts. To my reading, the translations were mostly fluid, other than some small misfires; ‘aliquot’, ‘insufflate’ and ‘disquisition’ can be found in English dictionaries, but before this, I was innocent to them. I was amused rather than confused by a ‘...bordeaux coloured carpet...’, but my reading was disrupted by extensive untranslated text (perhaps some things are untranslatable): ‘Ele pinta, expôs em Amsterdã três vezes, trabalha como curador’.
There are some cross-cultural issues, but that goes with the territory. In regards to attitudes to equality, both racial and sexual, on the basis of this anthology, the reader could be forgiven for forming a view that much of the Spanish-speaking world is as yet unreconstructed. The terms ‘black’, ‘white’ and ‘mulatto’ are used unapologetically in what presents as near-contemporary fiction.
Unsurprisingly, sex is referred to a number of times in these texts but seems functional rather than passionate, almost unilateral. There is an adolescent desire to shock; this is particularly true in the opening piece, Puenzo’s ‘Cohiba’, but is evident elsewhere. In ‘Cohiba’, a young woman attending a film festival is fascinated by a man in the seat beside her who masturbates and ejaculates onto the back of the seat in front of him: ‘I can’t tear my eyes from his work of art, the most ephemeral expression of modern art’.
Relationships are presented as loose connections. In Roncagliolo’s ‘Stars and Stripes’, the main protagonist describes his relationship trajectory as: ‘In time I married, divorced, married again and divorced again.’ Hasbún is more lyrical in ‘The Place of Losses’ when describing separation, ‘I missed her already, although she was only a half metre away’ – the significance is that what is lost, or sensed as loss is not the person, or the relationship, but the imagining of it. Navarro in ‘Gerado’s Letters’ is perhaps most brutal, when she describes the arc of a relationship in terms of: ‘We’ve spent nine years losing respect for each other’.
Much of the writing is solipsistic, some reads as blogging, an undifferentiated stream of consciousness, which may be contemporary, but also self-referential. Schweblin’s ‘Olingiris’ is introspective, without being revelatory. Pron’s ‘A Few Words on the Lifecycle of Frogs’ is a provincial South American writer writing about ... a provincial South American writer. Yushimito’s ‘Seltz’ seems one-dimensional, and includes text that reads like a wikipedia entry on wolverine dominance. Labbé’s ‘The Girls Resembled Each Other in the Unfathomable’ reads like a voice-over back-story for a CSI TV show.
Some of the texts are disjointed and episodic – with descriptions reading like screen directions. In ‘Cohiba’ there is also a membrane between the reader and the writer, possibly a lens or a viewfinder. It seems to me that ‘Cohiba’ is intensely sensory; visual, noisy, smelly – and that it might more successfully be rendered on film rather than as text. The same could be said of Néspoli’s ‘The Bonfire and the Chessboard’, a fascinating portrayal of a chess-game as duel. Néspoli builds tension well using internal dialogue and regular references to the expiring game-clock – again perhaps more amenable to film. There is beauty too; Néspoli weaves poetry into his text, he describes a bonfire of papers as: ‘Flocks of ash rose through the smoke like black butterflies’.
Earlier Spanish-language writers such as Cortázar, Dorfman and Allende railed against the political and social inequities in South America. Born after 1975, these writers have little memory of the social and moral circumstances that challenged earlier generations. I was hoping for commentary on the lives of their parents’ generation cast in the cool, distant and judgemental eye of children coming of moral age. History as retold by the next generation, in the way that Berhnard Schlink tried to make sense of the Third Reich in The Reader. I did not find this.
The editors characterise these stories as ‘quotidian’; I think banal is more accurate. This is not to say that there are not interesting and well-constructed narratives in this collection that include flashes of real literary skill. I enjoyed Montes’ ‘The Hotel Life’; I was stimulated by Hernández’s ‘The Survivor’ and charmed by Falco’s ‘In Utah There Are Mountains Too’. ‘Cohiba’ is continuing to creep up on me as a slow burn. Generally, I found I liked fragments, or parts of the texts, which are themselves mostly excerpts of larger works. I had a feeling that these texts, this anthology is like the product of a writer’s workshop – much of the writing is good, crafted and workmanlike – but none of it is extraordinary. For the most part I could not engage with the characters or the settings, it mostly seemed too much like small-town, middle-America. Perhaps the South Americans are overawed by their northern cousins – they would not be alone in this. Ultimately I ended up feeling “Whatever” – perhaps these twenty-two have captured the zeitgeist?
The editors have set themselves a challenge, how many of these writers will endure a decade? I hope some do, but I suspect that not many of the ones that do will make proud reference to these early pieces. I do commend Granta to you, but suggest that while a regular subscriber may overlook this edition as a bump in the road, for a new reader, I want to point out that it is unrepresentative and I would encourage you to look at the back catalogue (all of which are still in print) for alternate examples.
Luke McKechnie is a freelance writer and reviewer.
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Vol 15 No 1 April 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy